Category Archives: China

A Large Whisk and a Long History: Evolution of the Tea Whisk

It’s mid-January and it already feels like the year is wearing me down. Nations are tipping towards war. My partner’s family are being forced to evacuate their ancestral home in the Philippines due to a volcanic eruption. Climate change continues to cause worldwide calamity. In these dire circumstances, I cannot help but to sit and make tea.

I am reminded of the esoteric 真言律宗 Shingon-Risshū (Shingon-Vinaya sect) ritual held every January 15th at 西大寺 Saidaiji in the ancient capital city of Nara. Called 大茶盛式 ōchamoroshiki (lit. “big tea made in a grand style”), it involves the serving of a large bowl of tea to the local congregation of temple goers.

Originating during the 鎌倉時代 Kamakura jidai (Kamakura period, 1185–1333) when a Buddhist monk by the name of 叡尊 Eison (1201-1290) offered a bowl of 抹茶 matcha to the deity Hachiman. In this, he also offered tea to the local people. Rather than serve the assembled crowd with a multitude of small bowls, he opted to serve the tea in one large bowl. Today, the practice is said to bring the tea-reciecing guests good fortune and health for the New Year.

Similarly, given that all of the objects for this ritual are equally large (the 茶碗 chawan, the 茶筅 chasen, the 水指 mizusashi, the 棗 natsume, and 茶釜 chagama), it requires great strength and collective assistance to make and drink a bowl of tea. Having seen pictures of this early on in my tea practice, I was amazed at the scale of this, notably the size of the tea whisk, which measured almost a meter in length.

Sitting in my tearoom today, making a single bowl of tea to usher a year of good fortune, I cannot help but to ponder the develop of this piece of tea technology we know as the tea whisk.

Prior to the “official” popularization of whole leaf steeped tea (brought about by the 1391 imperial edict by Ming Emperor 洪武 Hóngwǔ (1328-1398), which declared that 貢茶 gòng chá, tribute tea, would no longer be offered in cake form), tea had largely been enjoyed as a mixture of hot water and powdered tea leaves throughout much of China, Korea, and Japan.

During the Tang period (618-907), compressed tea leaves were crushed and simmered, often brewed along with additional additives such as salt, dried herbs, flowers, and roots. As such, this beverage was more akin to the many medicinal soups that were part of the broader variety of Chinese medicines of the time. It wasn’t until the mid-Tang period that we see recorded the consumption of “tea for tea’s sake”, in such treaties on tea as 陸羽 Lù Yǔ’s (733-804) 茶經 Chá Jīng (760-762). However, tea wouldn’t be whisked until the later 宋 Song period (960-1279).

During this time, tea leaves were picked and processed and then ground down into powder. This powder tea would then be compressed into cake forms (團茶 tuánchá). Prior to brewing, the tea cakes would be broken, pulverized, sifted and powdered, finally being scooped into a tea bowl, where water was added and the tea was stirred from a thick slurry to a drinkable beverage.

Historical writings note that by the mid-Song period, tea was being whisked with a specialized tea scoop (茶匙 cháchí). In his 茶錄 Chá (“Record of Tea”, 1049-1053), 蔡襄 Cài Xiāng wrote that this scoop should be heavy so it can be whisked with force and that it was optimally made with gold, though commonly with silver or iron. Bamboo was deemed to light to achieve the desired results.

By the 1100s, this process had further refined, and so too did the equipage. Emperor 宋徽宗 Sòng Huīzōng described in his 大觀茶論 Dà Guān Chá Lùn (“Treatise on Tea”, 1107) the process and utensils for making a delicate bowl of 抹茶 mǒchá. In this, the stirring stick is replaced by a finely-crafted 茶筅 cháxiǎn (chasen in Japanese).

In the hands of a skilled tea practitioner, a bright, creamy foam would arise, “lustrous like mounding snow”. This refined process was poetically called 點茶 diǎn chá, to “mark the tea”, as more skilled practitioners were famed to have been able to create images in the foam they produced. To aid in this process and achieve the desired suspension of the tea powder, whisks fashioned out of finely splayed bamboo were crafted.

As one part of a wide array of necessary tea equipage, the whisk occasionally appeared in art depicting tea preparation.

A clearer image appears in the 1269 illustrated text 茶具圖贊 Chájù zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”) by 審安老人 Shěnān lǎo rén (Old man Shenan). Here, the whisk is given the poetic name 竺副師 zhú shī (literally translated to “Vice Commander Bamboo”, reflecting twelve “officer” ranks in the Southern Song period, there being twelve objects in the “Pictorial of Tea”). This image seems to depict what Huīzōng noted in his treatise; that the whisk should be made of older bamboo, the tines carved down to fine points like a sword’s blade, to be flexible and strong yet able to remain quiet and manageable when whisking tea.

Concurrently, by the late Southern Song period, we see whisks beginning to take on a form that bears a close resemblance to modern matcha whisks. Evidence of this is found in the ink on silk handscroll painting by Southern Song literati painter 李嵩 Lǐ Sōng (active 1190–1230). In his《貨郎圖》“Huòláng ” (“Image of a Peddler”), Lǐ goes to great length to show the contents of a tradesperson’s cart.

In this, we see a variety of tea ephemera, from ewers and bowls, a small stove and cup holders.

Upon closer inspection, one can see what appears to be a tea whisk.

Though records such as 朱權 Zhū Quán’s 1440 茶譜 Chápǔ (“Tea Manual”) mention that tea continued to be whisked up through the early-to-mid Ming period (1368-1644), the Song-style whisks (and the preparation of whisking powdered tea) eventually disappeared from China as the less complicated approach to brewing whole leaf tea took hold. However, whisked tea and the tea whisk did not disappear completely. Instead, it had made its way to Korean and Japan.

Beginning in the Tang period, Buddhist monks from Korean and Japan travelled to China, returning with learnings, as well as tea seeds and tea wares. From the Song period onward, the whisk began to make its way into both Korea and Japan, eventually influencing their own tea cultures (which were already deeply influenced by earlier Chinese forms). While records and physical artifactual evidence of whisks from these geographic areas or cultures from this period are limited at best, the whisk that was most likely used at this time was most likely similar to that of Song China.

Today, we can find its “distant relative” in the unique tea whisks used in throughout the Japanese archipelago. In Toyama and Niigata prefectures they employ a special “double-whisk” for the whisking of バタバタ茶 batabatacha (a form of powdered post-fermented tea, often serves with salt).

In Okinawa (once the Ryūkū kingdom/琉球王国 Ryūkyū Ōkoku), a larger and more robust bamboo whisk used used for whisking ぶくぶく茶 bukubukucha (often made of a mixture of toasted rice and tea, though other versions exist).

Superficially, both the batabatacha and bukubuku whisks bear a close resemblance to the tea whisks described in the Song period.

Both are long and flexible, and both forego the final splaying of the bamboo tines (as seen in the whisk depicted in Lǐ Sōng’s “Huòláng ”. In regards to the batabatacha whisk, this allows for the unique double-whisk form to flex and whip-up a fine foam.

As tea culture continued to evolve, tea and teaware forms evolved too. Japan continued to transform the shape and construction of the chasen until it took on a form that is recognizable today, with a set number of tines (usually ranging from 80 to 100 to 120), often finely carved to thin and flexible tips, splayed apart into two sections (an inner core and outer ring) through weaving thread between the individual tines. However, variations still exist.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”) and 薄茶 usucha (“thin tea”) call for different types of chasen.

Koicha, because it required the host to “knead” the tea into a thick slurry, calls for a more robust chasen. As a result, the tines of the chasen are fewer (typically often 80 tips, sometimes 60).

Usucha, since it usually requires a faster motion, requires the tines to be more flexible. As a result, the artisan will cut more of them (100-120 tines) and carve them thinner.

However, wider variations occur between different schools and levels of formality they observe, resulting in a wide variety of shapes, styles, lengths, tine count, types of bamboo employed, and ways they are carved and woven.

Smaller, more portable tea whisks are even made to be packed away for traveling tea sets, like this miniature chasen used for 野点 nodate.

So, what does this all mean as I sit to make my own bowl of tea? What does it mean to look upon a tea whisk? It is such a simple and mundane object to a tea practitioner. And yet, it, like everything in this world, has its story, it’s past. There was a person who must have been the first to imagine this. It surely did not invent itself. And yet it changed over time.

Someone must have believed they could refine the shape, the feel of the object in the hand, the way it might sit upwards atop its handle (as we now practice in chanoyu).

Someone must have decided that the whisk would work better if the tines were thinner, more flexible, more resilient to breaking. Someone must have understood that pre-warming the whisk in hot water would make it perform its task with greater ease and grace.

We cannot take this process for granted. Countless creative minds over thousands of years have left their mark on this most mundane of object to produce the transcendent experience we know as tea.

To be able to whisk a bowl of tea is in some way a culmination of this and a continuation of this evolution.

What new discoveries will we make?

What new hidden wonders will arise from our inspired minds. What great fortune will be bestowed upon the next generations from the thoughtfulness of those who currently live upon this tiny planet?

One bowl of tea after another. One more moment to recreate the world.

****

Links to resources and images (which are not my own):

Image of 大茶盛式 ōchamoroshiki “big tea” at Saidaiji, Nara: https://www.lmaga.jp/news/2018/01/33827/

Link to video of 大茶盛式 ōchamoroshiki “big tea” at Saidaiji, Nara: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=50DDa4RFpCg

Translation of 大觀茶論 Dà guān chá lùn (“Treatise on Tea”): https://www.globalteahut.org/resources/april16elec.pdf

Wikipedia article about 茶具圖贊 Chájù tú zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”): https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pictorial_of_Tea_Ware

Link to complete and detailed images from 李嵩 Lǐ Sōng’s 《貨郎圖》“Huòláng ” (“Image of a Peddler”): http://www.8mhh.com/2015/0107/20397.shtml#g20397=12

Translation of 茶譜 Chápǔ (“Tea Manual”): http://archive.globalteahut.org/docs/pdf_articles/2017-04/2017-04-a016.pdf

Images and great article about バタバタ茶 batabatacha tea whisk: https://www.google.com/amp/s/japaneseteasommelier.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/batabata-cha-from-toyama/amp/

Image of ぶくぶく茶 bukubukucha tea whisk: https://ja.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ブクブク茶

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, White Tea

Everything for the First Time

With the beginning of the year, there is a sense of renewal and potential for firsts. The first rays of sunlight cascading over the horizon on New Year’s morning. The first flecks of snow dancing in the grey skies of January’s Winter. The first moment we enjoy time with close friends. The first opportunity we have to truly sit in silence.

In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, the first gathering for tea is often heralded as a celebratory occasion, as everything from a bowl of tea, a flower in the 床間 tokonoma, the scent of incense wafting in the air is greeted with a renewed sense of freshness, as if the year itself was unfolding before one’s eyes.

For the first gathering, known in chanoyu as 初釜 hatsugama, literally “first kettle”, an atmosphere of freshness is emphasized. Sprigs of new pine often greet the guests as they wait. In the tearoom, long arching branches of green willow rise from a single tube of freshly cut bamboo, tied into a single circular knot, representing the commitment to togetherness and camaraderie in the year to come. For teabowls, often two are offered, one of gold and one of silver, together poetically called 島台 shima-dai, the Isle of Eternal Youth.

For my own hatsugama, I chose not to be so ostentatious. For me, a single black 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan would do. Serving this atop a wooden 天目台 tenmokudai, I would offer up a single bowl of 濃茶 koicha to my partner, a formal 感謝 kansha, an offering of deep gratitude.

Echoing yet another first, this would be the first time that I would prepare tea in such a manner after a series of focused trainings that I had conducted with my tea teacher. During these sessions, he had meticulously drilled into me the precision of form required to prepare tea with a tenmoku chawan and tenmokudai.

From the way the teabowl is carried into the tearoom to the way that the hand glides over the wide rim of the wooden flange of the three-section tenmokudai when setting it beside the 茶入 chaire, to the cadence adopted between each motion; each have been subtly changed and adjusted, following the instruction of my teacher. As these movements slowly become muscle memory, they open my mind again, as if for the first time, to the great expanse that is the creativity and endless meditation of tea practice.

Uncovering the 茄子 nasu (eggplant-shaped) tea container from its brocaded 仕服 shifuku pouch felt like opening the New Year’s potential.

Once the silken cord was loosened, a weight seemed to have been lifted, a burden unbound.

What emerged was a humble jewel made of mottled ceramic containing just enough tea to share.

Once purified, I set about to cleanse the other tea implements. The 茶杓 chashaku, fashioned out of a piece of 檜 hinoki cypress, was cleansed with my 袱紗 fukusa and placed atop the lid of the chaire. Hot water was pulled forth from my antique iron kettle and poured into the chawan. The 茶筅 chasen was placed into this and allowed to warm.

The tenmokudai was then purified, running the folded edge of my purple silk fukusa first along the rim of the 酸漿 hōzuki (uppermost supporting cup), and then upon the top surface of the wooden flange (羽 hane).

The bowl, itself, was as black as a starless night, save for an oily splash of glaze on its outer surface and for a rim framed in metal. Once clean, it stared up at me like a mirror, like a void.

Into its center, like a crucible, I issued the first scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder.

Next, setting the chashaku upon the flange of the wooden tenmokudai, I emptied the remaining tea into the teabowl.

Tilting the chaire, the matcha cascades downward, collecting into a free-form mound.

Closing the emptied chaire, I place it beside the chasen and set the chashaku once again atop its lid.

Pouring a small amount of hot water atop the tea, I begin to slowly and meticulously knead the concoction of water and powdered tea into a thick paste. Adding an additional measure of water into the bowl, I hold the chasen at an angle with my left hand so as not to let it touch the rim of the teabowl.

This, like many of the silent motions performed in this 点前 temae are a show of deep respect to both the honored guest and to the teaware itself.

Once fully mixed, the tea becomes a flat, opaque material; it, too, mirror-like in its appearance.

Pausing for a brief moment, I allow myself to breathe before I offer the bowl of tea to my partner. For a moment, we both peer upon the collected wares. Together, we wait for one another to respond. I break this pause as my hands meet to lightly grip the right and left edges of the hane of the tenmokudai. Lifting it up and setting it down closer between myself and my guest, I then turn my body to face my partner. Lifting the bowl atop the tenmokudai once more, I set it before my partner and we exchange bows. In this instance, I offer this bowl of koicha completely for her.

Offered in the formal manner using the tenmoku and tenmokudai, it harkens back to an earlier form once practiced during the 宗 Song period (969-1279), when tea was served to scholars, nobles and individuals of high honor atop lacquered stands. In this approach, the bowl is elevated above the dust and clutter of the world and was presented as an offering to one’s longevity, as tea was considered as a healthy elixir. As I offered this bowl of koicha to my partner, the first of the new year, I did so as an offering to her good health and continued vitality.

Finishing the tea, the residue of remaining koicha in the black expanse of the tenmoku chawan’s center appeared as a mere imprint of the passing moment.

As we finished our final pause before closing the early morning gathering, and before we both would part to begin our day of work, I arranged a simple 拝見 haiken of the 茶道具 chadōgu. A tea container in the shape of a small, round eggplant. A tea scoop fashioned from a portion of red-grained hinoki wood. A brocaded silk pouch decorated with chrysanthemums and pine needles. All arranged along the center of an old wooden tray for incense.

And in the alcove, a celadon 香合 kōgō made in the image of a glimmering moon, a reminder of the lunar eclipse, another first for the year.

In a singular moment such as this, we are offered the opportunity to enjoy something as if it were bestowed upon us for the very first time. The heat rising from the kettle. The soft, gentle sound of boiling water contrasting with the gusts of wind pressing through the trees. The bittersweet taste of tea still lingering in one’s senses.

As these moments come and fade, we are reminded that all time is like this. Constantly arising and constantly dying, one moment after the next. What we perceive to be future and past are merely shadows and echoes of what we know as now. One continuous moment. This first kettle for the year. The last dregs of tea. The beginner’s mind found when learning a new and ancient form. Everything for the first time, all the time.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

Everything Has Its Cycle

IMG_3630Winter is here. As I look out my tearoom window, all evidence points towards this. The tops of trees grow more barren by the day. The sky glows a dull matte grey in all directions. Birds huddle on bare branches and against brick buildings, trying to eek out the last vestiges of warmth. Only a few weeks before, Fall stood resplendent in all its colors. Months before that, sweat collected on my brow. And what now seems like a distant memory, I can recall the first fragrant breezes of Spring. Everything has its cycle.

Sitting in my tearoom, I collect myself around the warmth of my wooden and copper 火鉢 hibachi and the radiant heat given off by my old iron 鉄瓶 tetsubin. As the water inside its metal husk begins to boil I set before me a thin, clay-bodied Yixing teapot. Poetically referred to as a 水平壺 shuǐpíng hú, the shape of the pot is round, balanced, sturdy. It exudes strength and delicacy all in one simple and structured form.

B863EB7C-4430-45D1-B5B8-2EF8A70AAB23As the sound of boiling water climbs to an audible chatter, I open the teapot, set its lid down on top of the crest of its handle’s arc, and pour a measure of hot water into its vacant interior. I warm the teapot and pour the water out, again, to rest the lid atop the teapot’s handle.

23F61326-677C-46AC-A89E-53017AD518ABInto the space now I place a bamboo scoop’s worth of tea leaves. With a tilt of the scoop, they fall into place.

2E3C65E0-BB0B-4571-82DF-004F7B9C7D8FA jumbled mess of wiry fronds. Blades like grass of green and gold.

B41F19E0-1ED0-4350-8F4B-4F91B6540BBBAs it often does, the residual heat of the water begins to wake up the flavor of the tea, sending aromatic wafts of delicate floral notes into the air. This tea, a hand-picked and processed 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá, was harvested in Spring, yet now is joining me to aid in staving off Winter’s chill.

I sit for a while, listening to the water in my iron pot, waiting for the moment it begins to quiet. Steam rises from its spout, coiling like threads, at first just one and two, then more, and then as a steady stream as if it were a column piercing the air. Bubbles break the surface of the water and roil like a babbling source, until it, too, becomes a constant effluence. It is only now that the water has ripened and is finally ready for tea.

551ECADC-FE47-41C8-9815-7322B53E8736I pour the water over the twisted network of tea leaves, being mindful to move in a circular action so as to evenly cover them.

3DBAD72B-9E16-41FE-9E6C-091A7BA14915I place the lid back over the leaves and wait. In this pause I breathe. In this moment, the tea breathes. In and out my chest rises. In and out the tea leaves tumble and unfurl inside the walls of the red clay vessel. Inside my body is an entire system of organs working together to ensure me life. Inside the teapot is a dance of forces, of heat and of unfolding leaves, offering up their flavor. I wait for the moment they settle and absorb their last draught, causing a minute amount of liquid to draw down, back inside the spout of the teapot. I wait a moment more, breathe, and observe the color of the Yixing clay deepen and glow as if it held within it an otherworldly light.

9855E1BF-B4A6-49A0-8827-F4EFF60D3EF8I wait and breathe a last breath and draw the teapot up and out from the clay bowl it is set within. For a moment, as I pour the tea liqueur out, I contemplate on a void. A vast nothingness that exists within the clay bowl where once the teapot sat. The empty space between the branches of the trees where once bright verdant leaves sprung forth. The great hollow expanse of sky that stretches in all directions outside my tearoom window. The emptied vessel of my teapot as I set it back down to play host to another steeping.

FF4F5623-63FD-47C6-8CA0-DCD8801BCBA3And yet in this void there is abundance. In the open cavity of the teapot springs forth a bounty of tea leaves, and held within their once dried skin now exists a sense of life. In the once empty cup that sat beside me is a volume of brightly-colored liquid, and from this rises a complex array of flavors hearkening back to a time and place once thought to be distant and unreachable. As I sit upon the threshold of Winter I am reminded of the blossoming of Spring. On the flat grey of a November day I see the tawny reds and olive greens of Autumn in my teapot. Against the bright white porcelain of my teacup, I see the golden beams of Summer’s sun.

D9E95988-45E4-44BD-90AC-C16FA8928EF1In a world where we get caught within a single moment, how refreshing it is to know that everything has its cycle. When once we feel that we might know all there is to be known, how wondrous it is to be brought back to a place of boundless curiosity. How when we find ourselves in the grip of some unbreakable mental quandary, to scratch and claw against some unknown source of resistance, only to find that the solution was simple and naturally arising. Answers to all we seek are found within us and all around us. In the chill of a Winter’s day. In the scent lifting from a tea leaf. In the hollow of an empty vessel. In the silence that arrives when the water comes to a boil. In the cycles we can observe and in those we cannot.

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Tea for a Sunset and Autumn Rain

IMG_2201A week has passed and gone now are the even-measured days of Autumn’s equinox. In its place are nights that creep in sooner, more gently, rolling over the waning daylight like a soft purple quilt, warm and pleasant. On a day met by a light Autumn rain, I keep myself indoors, holed-up beside my iron brazier and bubbling kettle, their tune harmonizing with the gusts of wind and the sound of raindrops on my windowsill.

E59E1F05-8A0E-4116-98E4-B6BE55A708FEAs the light of dusk fades, I produce a simple collection of wares: a half-broken tea boat, a sandy-colored teapot, a jade archer’s ring for a lid rest, and two plain Korean vessels, one for pouring, another for drinking. In this warm light of sundown, the tiny space of my tearoom glows with shifting hues of amber, copper, and the smoldering red tip of an incense stick.

IMG_2221As I wait for the incense to burn down, I watch the light of day fade and quiet across the soft pages from a book of verses I read until I can no longer make out the words.

61473BB2-4BA8-4910-A874-4418F6591314As steam rises from the kettle’s spout and its iron lid begins to chatter, I pull forth a cake of tea, resting it atop the wooden plank that is my tea table. A myriad of colors, a mess of twisted leaves all pressed into on another.

D9931783-6303-454E-B403-C090A8463DA9With a dull knife I break some free and set them into the empty void of the open teapot.

155B6781-714B-42B7-9854-316586FD4F66As I tilt my kettle, water gushes out, boiling-over and onto the compressed tea. The leafy fragment tumbles and bobs, settles and breathes to the sound of the rain.

352E95D1-CD09-4F51-9DE5-4F91CE86FAA8Closing the lid of the teapot, I wait and the light of the day shifts deeper into darkness. I sit and focus my gaze onto the tiny pot, waiting for its color to change, waiting for the liquid to pull down into its hand-carved spout.

459C9A0C-5554-4E03-9FB0-16F8CF25545CAs I wait, I see the cracks upon the surface of the ceramic teaboat. Cracks that were born through the kiln’s fire and through daily use, through five hundred years of age. Broken and pitted like Autumn’s leaves.

IMG_2222Broken and uneven like a cake of tea. Loved and cared for despite its imperfections. Exalted and used for its function.

90EFEF11-4F4F-4BBF-8698-5BA2AA96A000I end my pause and pour out the tea from pot to serving vessel. A rich tawny bronze liqueur and a complex aroma of tangled vegetation.

6363EDA4-50D6-4285-9926-395E165CB778Tea and teapot sits and cools as daylight finally fade.

0063DBF8-7FE7-49A5-8A28-45DD41A28332A single teacup to be enjoyed alone as I light a candle and greet the night.

 

****

As I finished this piece, I continued to brew tea long into the night. Upon waking, I thought if there might happen to have been a poet from long ago who may have enjoyed a similar moment (with tea or not). To my joy, there was a poem by Tang period (618-907) poet 白居易 Bái Jūyì (772–846). I leave you the original version and translation (provided by Chinese Poems, linked here).

IMG_2223

秋雨夜眠

涼冷三秋夜,
安閒一老翁。
臥遲燈滅後,
睡美雨聲中。
灰宿溫瓶火,
香添暖被籠。
曉晴寒未起,
霜葉滿階紅。

Qiūyǔ yè mián

Liáng lěng sānqiū yè,
ānxián yī lǎowēng.
Wò chí dēng miè hòu,
shuì měiyǔ shēng zhōng.
Huī sù wēn píng huǒ,
xiāng tiān nuǎn bèi lóng.
Xiǎo qíng hán wèi qǐ,
shuāng yèmǎnjiē hóng.

Sleeping on a Night of Autumn Rain

It’s cold this night in autumn’s third month,
Peacefully within, a lone old man.
He lies down late, the lamp already gone out,
And beautifully sleeps amid the sound of rain.
The ash inside the vessel still warm from the fire,
Its fragrance increases the warmth of quilt and covers.
When dawn comes, clear and cold, he does not rise,
The red frosted leaves cover the steps.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, History, Incense, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting

The Importance of Space

IMG_1928In daily life, actions, tasks, thoughts and emotions can come in rapid succession, one after the other, piling-up like subway trains caught in a tunnel. Over time, the effect of this can become overwhelming until the mind succumbs to stress. Taking a moment to pause, to breathe, can be just enough to break this cycle and reset the mind, transforming a stressful situation into one that is manageable, perhaps even pleasant.

In the practice of tea, the mere act of sitting for tea can become this moment. Even while one may be in the midst of the chaos and clamor of the daily world, to sit and make tea can have the effect of making space; emotionally, spatially, and even temporally. Space, and all the dimensions it can encompass, becomes a distinct feature of tea. The empty space of a teapot can define how much liquid it can hold and how much the tea leaves can expand within it. The space between objects can establish their relationship to each other and even infer their function. Objects and beings, when given their own space, can become both independent of each other, as well as interdependent to one another. It is this space that imbues them with both latent and infinite possibilities.

In Japanese, the term 間 “Ma” (“Jiān” In Chinese) is used to describe this notion. Roughly translating to “gap”, “space”, “pause” or “the space between two structural parts”, Ma is found in all manner of ways, from a pause in action to the space between objects and the nature of a void. In the classic literati and Zen art of Japan, China and Korea, objects are often given their own space, surrounded by a significant amount of “empty” space. Whether mountains, trees, scholarly equipage or even six persimmons arranged together, Ma is allowed to exist both around the objects and, to an extent, within them. Compositions can juxtapose this interrelation of matter and space in dramatic ways, creating dynamism or, equally, a sense of harmonic serenity.

BE1F111E-8D1E-425B-82F9-553139E27009Setting up my teaware to enjoy a moment to taste tea, I try to strike this balance between forms, matter and emptiness. Placed on an expanse of gnarled wood, I arrange each object based on their function and flow. The carved bamboo teascoop sits next to the red Yixing clay 茶船 chá chuán (lit. “tea boat”), in the center of which sits a small 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot”).

D614A507-A844-4884-9229-E76947B16649Shadows fill the empty space within and between each object, turning each void into dark pools.

D9855589-503F-401E-AF94-252BAF32774BA grey 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel) are set closely to one another, yet do not touch each other. Their concave hollows are empty, save for the shadows and light gathered within them.

7E55465B-9D1B-4526-BB21-8B5B0791CB7AThe bamboo scoop sits with its back facing upward, the dark, smooth skin set in contrast to the cursive characters carved upon its surface. Even here, space exists between the written words.

13EA25BD-6B3F-41C8-BA99-BEDEA0464BBCTurned over, thick, curled tea leaves are set upon the interior space of the scoop.

C1A3305B-1042-4FE5-94BD-A2FEB45E20C3Placed into the teapot, the leaves occupy the entirety of the empty space. A void becomes full. Filled with hot water from an iron kettle, the tea is left to steep. Seconds pass, allowing the tea leaves to unfurl and expand. In the space of my tearoom, silence fills the void. In my mind, thoughts sit side-by-side with quietude.

B31967BA-EFE7-4B27-BC21-277C989F3342Pouring the tea out completely, I set the lid ajar, allowing hot vapor to exit the teapot and cooling the tea leaves.

C367E4AC-B7BA-4E35-8B7F-1277A76570B3Turning my gaze from teapot to sookwoo, I view the amber-hued liqueur that came from from the coiled leaves of 紫紅袍 Zǐ Hóng Páo (“Purple Red Robe”) 武夷山岩茶 Wǔyíshān yánchá (Wuyishan “cliff tea”).

7C663A01-DED5-4FEE-9006-885252FA8457Then, from sookwoo to teacup, I pour the tea, and in the space between this teacup and my lips, I can sense the complex, spicy aroma of this brew.

One more pause and I am filled with anticipation. One sip and my mind is flooded with sensations, flavors, and lingering notes onto which instinctively and habitually I try to attach words and qualifying definitions. Even as the taste of tea becomes fleeting, the empty space of this moment after tea feels full with thoughts swirling and a mind still grasping. As this settles, time between steepings expands and silence, once again, returns. A time to pause. An empty space. A cup full of tea. A moment brimming with possibilities.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting

To Have Flowers Without Flowers

IMG_1764According to the 易經 Yìjīng (I Ching), the ninth day of the ninth month is said to have too much  yáng force and is therefore seen as a potentially harmful date. On this day, it is believed that climbing a high mountain, drinking chrysanthemum liquor, and wearing 茱萸 zhūyú (Cornus officinalis, a type of dogwood) would prevent harm. For this reason, a main feature of the festivities and customs surrounding the “Double Nine Festival” are chrysanthemums. In Japanese tea culture, 菊の節句 Kiku no Sekku, or “Chrysanthemum Festival”, is observed, often through the unavoidable display of the flower in the 床間 tokonoma alcove of the tearoom.

Usually, I find myself making a small arrangement on this day and making tea, enjoying the vibrant colors and delicate forms of chrysanthemums. However, on this September ninth, I found myself busy with work and terribly jet lagged, having just returned from a trip to the Philippines. With little time and much less energy, I found myself unable to even step out to procure the necessary flowers. Undaunted, I managed to muster up enough energy to put together a solitary sitting for tea.

Having finished my daily work, I lit a stick of incense and I set my antique 風炉 furo (“wind furnace”) to boil water. Next, sliding open the doors of my antique wooden tea cabinet, I brought out an arrangement of teawares: a vintage 萩焼茶碗 Hagi-yaki chawan, a teascoop and whisk carved by master craftsperson 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango, and a small Korean Goryeo-style celadon incense container.

7DFD038D-5FA1-4BE8-985E-10532B6F3ED8As the iron kettle began to boil, I began to sift a small amount of 抹茶 matcha into the shallow interior of the incense container. Although not common in 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), I’ve made it a personal practice to occasionally use 香合 kōgō to hold tea. In this instance, I deliberately chose to do this as the incense container is decorated with an inlaid chrysanthemum motif.

D5FB44AE-62AF-46EC-8C23-40A8FE838865Finally ready, I sat down to enjoy a bowl of tea. Cleansing the celadon kōgō, I had a brief moment to enjoy the traditional inlay design of deep red, pale white, and dark green against the soft celadon background. Lifting the lid, I admired the low mound of bright green matcha encircled by a ring of russet-colored unglazed clay.

10EE9B16-FD96-426F-A7C8-77275CEDAA9CNext, I turned my gaze to the teabowl, scoop and whisk.

5F8C8726-EC7C-44C7-8A93-1E86D3B82935With the folded 袱紗 fukusa (a silk cloth used to purify teaware), I cleansed the 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop), setting it down atop the flat lid of the celadon kōgō.

987770C4-4A2A-4B0B-A4FD-8A955DD1C517Next, whisk in hand, I began to cleanse the teabowl. Once purified, I set the bowl down, ready to produce a bowl of matcha.

13F6B62E-F8A8-48E6-839D-71BCDC34136CIssuing-out three scoops of tea powder from the incense container, I set each within the well of the teabowl. Scooping-up a ladle if hot water from the iron kettle, I poured half of it into the teabowl, returning the remainder back into the kettle.

BE37C626-9923-4E0B-A60B-FE354BE7F5B8Whisking the matcha powder and boiled water concoction into a light foam, the tea and teabowl seemed to come to life in the golden glow of the late afternoon light.

B0903613-F9DB-49B1-9DFE-498E492B2DEETaking all objects together, I appreciated the personal gesture of making tea despite the busyness of my workday. Often is the case I don’t make time for tea. Even when I was traveling, I had not given myself a moment to pause and slack my thirst with the beverage. An email here, an assignment there, and even the self-imposed pressure of “performing” can sometimes keep me from stopping to take in my surroundings and meditate on the “now”. Yet, how subtle a gesture it is to make tea. To involve my whole mind and body in a simple process. No ritual. Just action. Just a recognition of a basic procedure, of the breath, of the feeling of a warm teabowl in my hands as I lift it to my lips. This is just enough to bring me back to the present moment.

7EED1D84-519F-43C4-A59C-FA5236A31856On a day with no flowers in my alcove, I found the means to have flowers without flowers. A bouquet of senses. A ring of chrysanthemums decorating a makeshift tea container. Just enough to turn this day into a celebration.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Incense, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

The Cicada Emerges and Sheds Its Skin

IMG_1470Within the month of August, Summer’s heat gradually fades, giving way to Autumn’s cool. While the days remain hot, breezes push through the canopies of the large, broad-leafed deciduous trees, and press through the fields of grass, creating great waves upon an emerald ocean.

Amidst the gentle rustling of the wind, the cacophonous sound of cicadas is unavoidable, like an endless chorus, with each species offering-up a different melody. While rarely present to the eye, the melodious cicada we may encounter, in fact, is the final growth stage of what is often a decade’s-old being. Crawling out from its underground burrow, the cicada nymph will climb the nearest tree and break-through its old dull-colored skin, emerging as a brightly-colored, fully-formed adult.

This transformation and the shedding of skin is laden with symbolism. In East Asia, this can mark the exchanging of Summer for Autumn, but also may represent rebirth, analogous to spirits rising up to take on a purer form as they pass into the transient realm. For this reason, in ancient China, cicada-shaped amulets made of jade were often placed in the mouths of the dead.

It also comes as no surprise that in many East Asian cultures, August is the month when people collectively observe the passing of those who had died during the year. While to many this may seem grim, to those who regularly take note of the ever-changing seasons, this is just part of the way time holds sway over all aspects of our lives.

6696AF57-34FE-4B05-BF72-13A4A10D3DCEIn my tearoom, this feeling is ever-present. Outside my window, the cicadas cry from early morning through the evening. Even today, they make their presence known. To celebrate their lives (and eventual passing), I offer them a bowl of 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”). For this, I bring out a special collection of teaware: a small 茄子茶入 nasu-chaire (“eggplant-shaped tea container”) and 海鼠釉天目茶碗 namako-yū tenmoku chawan (“sea cucumber-glaze” tenmoku teabowl).

IMG_1402As I begin the process of cleansing each object, I can’t help but to see the connection between removing the small ceramic chaire from its silk brocade 仕服 shifuku pouch and the emergence of the cicada from its discarded skin.

5A1F25F5-5138-44E6-9914-89F7B97B8D7EEach movement is calculated, revealing more and more of the hidden object.

65BACCB0-9BE0-48E8-8E4B-8CDEC2F57AF6A thin sheath, to reveal a jewel within.

E41C2279-8B7F-4CE3-9AF5-726BA6F9AC85The teabowl, too, bears a resemblance to the often vibrantly-colored insect, with nebulous pools of blue intermingling with threads of white set against a deep chocolate brown.

2F62AB52-29EC-45A1-B6C4-9B7551F1C01BOnce cleansed, each object, from the chaire to the 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop), are set into motion.

BF8E1D7A-BCEF-4FFA-990A-F641D244D480Upon doling-out three scoops of 抹茶 matcha (“powdered tea”) from the chaire, I then pour the remainder of the tea left in the tea container into the teabowl.

IMG_1471Rather than whisk the tea (as is done when making a bowl of 薄茶 usucha, “thin tea”), I knead the concoction of tea powder and water into a thick slurry.

7E6C3640-A37B-4EF0-B244-5A7E289726FDThe end result is a slick liquid with a lacquer-like shine.

D7E8D031-DC7E-4D2A-9786-ED5E27381F16Set atop a silk brocade 古帛紗 kobukusa (a thick square of brocaded silk used to present a tea object), I take the first sip from the teabowl to honor the thousands of tiny sonorous guests outside my window.

IMG_1452With the rich flavor of koicha still lingering and the chiming of the cicadas still audible, I begin to close the private tea gathering.

24F61BC6-15BC-420D-B86D-9FF3092A3B38Before I put each object back into their respective 桐箱 kiribako (boxes made of paulownia wood), I perform a simple 拝見 haiken. Shifuku, chashaku, and chaire are set together. Implements brought into the service of making tea for but a brief moment. Like a flash, they appear and then recede from sight. To pause to appreciate this fleeting interaction, the interplay of colors and textures, materials and shapes, is akin to the recognition of the passing of time itself.

As one season transforms into another, as a cicada sheds its skin, we, too, are changed by this subtle process. We, too, are moved by it.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea